For the last 12 years I’ve carried four stones in my pocket.
It started after Emma died, when a woman, whose last name is Love, gave us each a clear sort of stone with an angel inside. I put mine in my pocket and started carrying it around with me. I liked the idea that Emma was with me everyday.
Nancy and I went to visit friends of ours that summer. Their family has a cabin on Lake Michigan. It’s a peaceful place, and they thought being by the water would help us heal. One day we took a road trip up the coast of that great lake. We made a stop in a town called Petoskey. It turns out the town is famous for a particular kind of rock that you can find along the shore. The rocks have a beautiful honeycomb pattern in their veins. It’s common to see bunches of people strolling the shoreline, heads down, picking up rocks, wetting them, and then examining closely to check for the signature pattern.
That day, I had incredible luck. I not only found a Petoskey stone, but I found one that was in the shape of a heart. It reminded me of my Valentine. I put my Petoskey heart into my pocket alongside the angel. It was nice to think of Nancy and Emma together in my pocket all day long.
Not long after that, I received a stone owl as a gift. It was small, about the size of a marble, but it had that knowing look, that alert look that I love about owls. In a book I read, an author was writing about a mathematician who had the same last name as mine, but the author used the word “owl” for that mathematician, saying that’s what our name meant. I had always heard that our name meant meadow. Since my first name sometimes translates as “rock,” I always thought my name meant, a rock in the meadow, but I liked that maybe our name meant owl. I had always thought of my daughter Sarah as an owl. She had a way of seeing past or through any of the froth and bubbles of the world. She saw clearly and had gained wisdom beyond her years –actually, beyond my years. I put the owl in my pocket. It was nice to have Sarah and her wisdom with me all day.
Around that same time, we had all started going to a support group at a place called The Den for Grieving Kids. Sarah had felt that none of her friends, try as they might, could understand what it was like to lose a close family member. They didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting better faster. It had been several months. She realized that most of them hadn’t lost a grandparent, much less a sibling. We thought that being in a group with other kids who had experienced loss would help her feel more connected or understood. The group was good for her. It turned out that the parent group was also so good for me and for Nancy.
The Den had several rituals. They opened each meeting by having everyone say the name of the person they had lost. “My name is Peter, and my daughter Emma died.” It was painful at first, but it felt important. We closed every session by singing “Lean on Me,” promising to be there for the other grieving people.
They had other rituals. When someone started at the Den, while everyone stood in a circle, a child presented each newcomer with a rock – a rough rock to hold and keep. They said it stood for us — at that time — rough, sharp-edged, and broken. They assured us that over time, our rock would become smoother, softer, polished by time and by touch. Over time, we too would soften, our jagged scars gradually rounding. At one of our first sessions, we witnessed a final ritual. A woman who had been in our grieving parent group announced that tonight would be her last session at The Den. She had been coming for four years, but now it was time. She had leaned on The Den long enough. A child from across the circle approached her shyly and handed her a smooth stone. Her grief was softer now, more rounded. Watching the ritual, I thought about that expanse of time, four years. It felt so long. But I also felt a sliver of hope.
I now had four stones, and they were my family — an angel for Emma, a heart for Nancy, an owl for Sarah, and a rough rock for me. I carried them faithfully for 12 years. Every night I set them on my bedside table. Every morning I put them back in my pocket.
Then this summer something happened.
One day in July I was emptying my pocket as I changed to go for a bike ride. I noticed that my owl was missing. I texted Nancy to look for it at her school, since I’d been there that morning. She didn’t find it. I searched all over my house, in other pockets, under the bed, between couch cushions, in the laundry, in my car. No owl. I blamed the new shorts I’d been wearing. They had very shallow pockets. Whenever I sat down, the contents of my pockets came perilously close to the rim. That must have been when the owl got away.
It bothered me, partly because I can’t stand losing things, but mostly because that owl stood for Sarah, and she was about to head off to grad school, moving out of our house, perhaps for the last time.
Then another thing happened. Nancy, Sarah, and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a week of hiking. This was our happy place, where we’d spent many summers going to camp or working at camp. On our first full day, a Sunday, we headed out early to beat the heat and the weekend crowds. We had decided to hike up Roostercomb Mountain. I put my three rocks, the angel, the Petoskey heart and the less-rough stone in the zipper pocket of my favorite hiking shorts. The pocket was on the outside of my left pant leg. The rocks rattled with every step, bouncing against my thigh. I didn’t mind. I liked the idea that I was carrying them with me every step of the climb.
Roostercomb is a small but beautiful mountain. We like it as a first-day hike because it eases us into the week. We had the mountain to ourselves on this early morning, and we made it back to our cabin by noon. As I changed out of my sweaty hiking clothes, I unzipped the side pocket to retrieve my stones. I reached inside. The pocket was empty. I checked the pocket on the other side. Maybe I’d put them on my right. I reached in. Nothing there. I searched the floor and under the bed. Maybe they’d fallen out. Nope. I rushed out to the car and checked the driver’s seat. No sign of the stones.
I trudged back to the cabin and checked the pants again, this time more carefully. These pockets were deep and had a zipper. How could the stones be gone? As I reached further, my fingers discovered the problem. A hole. Not a big one, but big enough for an angel, a heart, and a less-rough rock to slip away.
“They must have fallen out on the trail,” I sighed to Nancy and Sarah.
“Do you want to go back and look for them?” Sarah asked.
“No,” I sighed. “That would be a pitiful way to hike, looking down at the ground the whole way up.”
Later, I thought about how my family had never done that last day ritual at The Den. Sarah had gotten busy with school, sports, and choirs, and stopped attending. Nancy and I had continued for several more years, gradually transitioning from those with the freshest grief to those who tried to comfort the newcomers. Eventually, though, our attendance became spotty, and we finally just stopped making the drive. Maybe, I thought now, my faulty pockets were trying to tell me something. Maybe it was time. Maybe the stones weren’t so much my family as they were my grief, and maybe now they were smooth enough to slip away.
Grief doesn’t ever really fade away, but maybe it doesn’t have to rattle in your pocket with your every step.
Just the same, Sarah handed me a stone angel before she left for school last week. The next morning Nancy presented me with the angel that she’d been given by the woman whose last name is Love.
I’ll keep them on my bedside table.